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ActiveX in Plain English

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Getting a fix on Microsoft's Interactive Technology
By Nate Zelnick

In a industry conference for Internet developers, Microsoft was plainly hoping to counter the perception that it is technologically backward when it comes to the Web. One of the drums it beat loudest in this regard was a new technology called ActiveX. Here's a look at this technology's origins, its special strengths, and the position Microsoft hopes it will eventually occupy.

  • What is ActiveX?

    ActiveX is the umbrella name for Microsoft's dynamic content initiative. It consists of Active Controls, which are downloadable programs, and Active Documents, which allow a browser (or other container) to host a file with all of its editing tools and functions available.

  • Is ActiveX just another name for OLE Custom Controls (OCXs)?

    Not exactly. While OCXs can act as ActiveX controls, the new format is not as stringent as OLE, yields smaller files and can run distributed across the network.

  • What's the difference between COM and OLE?

    OLE is an implementation of the Component Object Model (COM), which, like Apple and IBM's OpenDoc, is a way to break applications into pieces or objects that can be strung together to add functions to a program. The objects "speak" to each other through standard generic interfaces, so that one component can massage its data and then offer it up to the other without having to worry about what that other object specifically needs. This means that existing OCXs will run in the COM/ActiveX architecture, but will not be as efficient as objects written to the new specification, since they carry the old, more complex mandatory interfaces.

  • What does all this mean for Web developers?

    Theoretically, it means another way of inserting life into the Web, which is widely seen as being far too static. Like Java, Active Controls are little programs that add functionality to Web pages. Controls can be written to add new features like dynamic charts, animation or audio. And those controls don't necessarily require the developer to learn new tricks; the controls can be written using mature development systems like Visual C++, Visual Basic and Borland's Delphi. Internet Studio, the high-end publishing system that Microsoft is working on, will also facilitate the development of interactive Web pages using Active Controls.

  • So it sounds like this is Microsoft's answer to Java.

    Not exactly. Microsoft is actually positioning Active Controls as a platform that can accommodate many languages, including Java. Separately, Microsoft has another development effort under way--a system called Jakarta that can write Java applications, applets and COM controls. Further, Microsoft plans to incorporate its implementation of the Java virtual machine in the beta of Internet Explorer 3.0.

  • Does this mean that companies used to optimizing for Navigator will have to support yet another version of their page if they want to take advantage of ActiveX?

    That certainly isn't Microsoft's hope. The company's "embrace and extend" strategy involves mimicking any popular features that Netscape provides. Some of this is already apparent in Internet Explorer 3.0, which supports JavaScript and frames in the alpha version and should be able to run all Navigator plug-ins once the final version is available. In the long term, Microsoft would probably argue that developers could optimize for Internet Explorer, and in so doing, be supporting every Netscape extension plus ActiveX.

    Besides all this, a Vancouver, B.C., company called NCompass has built a plug-in for Navigator 2.0 that allows that browser to run ActiveX, and Microsoft has endorsed the product, ensuring that it will continue to support ActiveX moving forward. So pending the longer-term solution, there's a short-term one.

  • What about security? It sounds like these downloadable programs could be viruses.

    Both Netscape and Microsoft are planning to use digital signature technology from VeriSign to identify the authors of downloadable programs. While this won't protect anyone from viruses and malicious code, it will make sure that applets and controls have not been tampered with after they are placed on the Web, and that if something breaks your company's system, you'll know who did it.

  • Where do Active Documents fit in, and when will they be available?

    Active Documents is a new feature that's supposed to become available in Internet Explorer 3.0. Basically, Microsoft has taken the browser itself and reduced it to an empty container that ships with an HTML parsing engine inside. That container could just as easily hold a word processing engine or a spreadsheet engine or a graphics engine. When Internet Explorer 3.0 hits a file type it knows, it loads the appropriate engine and pops up all of the toolbars and editing functions appropriate to it. Potentially, this means users will be able to browse through all files, local or on the Internet, the same way they'd browse through the Web. That's what the Active Documents technology is all about.

  • Is this just another case of Microsoft pushing its own proprietary solutions?

    Not according to Microsoft. It may not initially have liked the position it was in, but Microsoft seems to have gotten the message that in the Internet space, it needs to be more open than it is accustomed to being. Consequently, the company has documented all of the specifications for COM, ActiveX and the new native Internet interfaces for Win32 and has published them freely. It's also giving away the source code for Visual Basic Script and is promising to support more of the HTML 3.0 specifications than any commercial browser, including Navigator.

    It's true that ActiveX is Win32-centric, but the market is taking care of that: Macromedia is porting ActiveX to the MacOS, and Bristol Technologies has developed a port of Win32 and OLE for most flavors of Unix.

  • What has Netscape's response been to all this?

    So far, Netscape has stressed that Microsoft's solutions are proprietary and favor the Windows operating system. That's opposed to Netscape's own approach, of being fully cross-platform. Microsoft is working hard on addressing the technology parts of that criticism by providing far more support than it usually does for the Macintosh platform. (The company still is skeptical about Unix, which it sees as having an insignificant share of the market.)

    On the formal standards-making side, Netscape and Microsoft are playing things pretty much the same way. Both companies, for instance, are working with standards bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). But both have released products before the proposed standards have been submitted--much less approved--by the appropriate committees, in an attempt to set de facto standards that give an edge in the marketplace.

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